Wishing Well, Penny

July 25, 2006 | 39 comments
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A dear friend of mine recently wrote to me, confiding that she’s been coming to the slow and vertiginous realization that she’s never had a strong testimony of the gospel, despite a life of exemplary activity in and service to the Church. With her permission, I’ve shared my response to her letter below.

Dearest,

I want you to know first of all that I don’t think that your doubt is the fruit of sin. You are a sinner, certainly, we all are; some of us sinners, inexplicably, retain our faith, and some of us don’t. There are sinful ways of managing doubt, like handling it ungently with intimates, or using it as justification for sloth or dishonesty or cruelty, or finding in it evidence of one’s own superiority, spiritual or intellectual. I don’t think you’ll make these mistakes, though, and writing to me was a good way to come to an initial settlement. I’m not horrified or hurt, and it’s always okay to talk to me about where you are.

I think I know a little of what you’re facing. Like you, I easily fall under the influence of elegant naturalisms, and like you, I’m frequently persuaded by rational analyses of religious and spiritual phenomena. One of things I want to convey to you is that I’ve been able to live well for some time through periodic encounters with doubt. I may be unusual in this way. But if urgent spiritual effort doesn’t yield results, consider the possibility that you can stay where you are spiritually for a while, and give it time, a long time. These are the biggest questions, and they deserve maturity and experience on their side.

I generally don’t find accounts of other people’s spiritual experiences persuasive—I often find them embarrassing, in fact—so I won’t give you the specifics of mine. But I have had from time to time what I think of as “irreducibleâ€? spiritual intuitions that I think I can distinguish from high emotion and desire, coming as they have without the promptings of high-key sociality or emotion. These experiences are sufficient to sustain my faith in God and the Restoration, the former being for me the more fragile than the latter. I do believe that surer witnesses are available to me and others, though they seem to come infrequently, and I live with the hope and expectation of another, surer revelation.

Your faith is failing, you say, because the feelings you once interpreted as spiritual witnesses have decamped, and look in hindsight more like wishful delusion than personal revelation. I certainly recognize this variety of doubt: as I said above, the spiritual intuitions I rely on most are, circuitously, the ones that don’t come at moments of high social or emotional pitch, precisely because (I judge that) I’m therefore less likely to mistake wishes or delusions for revelation.

But more and more I’m wondering if this subtractive method is wrong, if after all I’m wrong to strip away the layers of desire and story and emotion and memory in search of the hard bright penny of positive knowledge. Could it be instead that desire and story and all the rest aren’t, as I’ve thought, counterfeit revelation, but are in fact the elemental substances of revelation, and that in personal revelation God invites us to make meaning with him? To be a conscious human is to transform sensory information into, precisely, desire and story and memory and feeling; presumably it is this capacity for consciousness that sets apart humanity as the family of God, that is, in fact, the image of the divine in us. To receive personal revelation, then, might not be so much a problem of tuning out the static of self and tuning in the celestial frequency, but rather of heightening the processes of consciousness, of mingling our own faculties with God’s to make meaning out of sensations and information unorganized. Which is to say, maybe it is wishful thinking, and maybe that’s exactly how it ought to be.

When you see a family posed in prayer, the deacons at the solemn choreography of the sacrament, supplicants and congregants giving body to the rituals and mind to the myths—how could such unnatural beauty draw its substance from anything else but desire and story and feeling and memory? A million hard bright pennies, for all their value, couldn’t begin to do the trick.

I love you, and you’ll get through this.

Rosalynde

39 Responses to Wishing Well, Penny

  1. DavidH on July 25, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    Thanks Rosalynde. I identified with your post, and also identified with the feelings of your friend.

    Notwithstanding James 1:6, I do not believe doubt is inconsistent with testimony or faith.

    Jesus said with faith the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains. I have seen miracles in my own life with even less faith–perhaps the size of a virus or a molecule. See Jeffrey R. Holland, “Broken Things to Mend,â€? Ensign, May 2006, 69 (molecule of faith); Henry B. Eyring, “As a Child,â€? Ensign, May 2006, 14 (glimmer of faith).

    I really like Barack Obama’s comments on faith in his own life–which are fairly close to my own feelings and experiences:

    “Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts.

    “You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away – because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

    “It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”

  2. Russell Arben Fox on July 25, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    As Melissa Proctor told me on a couple of occasions, Doubt is not the opposite of faith; Fear–the kind the will make someone stop in their tracks, back away, refuse to engage, give up trying–is. I haven’t made peace with my doubts, and I hope I never will; I know people who live without doubt, and I envy them. But, in the meantime, so long as I can “be not afraid,” and keep going forward, then I think all will be well.

    All our love and best wishes to you and your friend, Rosalynde.

  3. Adam Greenwood on July 25, 2006 at 3:11 pm

    “These experiences are sufficient to sustain my faith in God and the Restoration, the former being for me the more fragile than the latter.”

    How true is that. It’s those durn elegant naturalisms. Its the strange attraction of evolutionary just-so stories.

  4. Kevin Barney on July 25, 2006 at 3:14 pm

    Very nice, Rosalynde. You’re a good friend.

  5. DKL on July 25, 2006 at 3:40 pm

    “rreducibleâ€? spiritual intuitions that I think I can distinguish from high emotion and desire, coming as they have without the promptings of high-key sociality or emotion

    Well described.

    I personally think that doubt plays a much larger role in shaping our exploration and expression of faith than is commonly acknowledged–doubt and boredom both, in fact.

  6. Doubting Lurker on July 25, 2006 at 3:57 pm

    I am in a position similar to that of your friend, Rosalynde. My faith has been almost destroyed. I now cling to thin strands of hope, so I appreciated this post. Although I do have difficulty with some of the well known intellectual and historical issues, the root of this destruction is not intellectual. My real problem is that God does not talk back to me. I am trying, as you suggest, to mingle my “own faculties with God’s to make meaning out of sensations and information unorganized”. However, I see little evidence that God is interested in letting me mingle my faculties with his. He seems rather uninterested in me right now, and the sensations and impressions I feel deep within me as I attend church, serve in my calling and study the scriptures are leading to me conclusions that are the opposite of what I once believed, and still want to believe. I am not sure what to do about that right now, but I will be reading the comments posted here with some considerable interest.

  7. Rosalynde Welch on July 25, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you for the comments, all. David, nice follow-ups. I was interested in this line from Obama, “It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany.” I’ve thought about this a little, and I can’t say that I experience belief voluntarily. I do, however, submit to faith voluntarily. What’s the difference between belief and faith, then?

  8. Costanza on July 25, 2006 at 4:48 pm

    Rosalynde,
    Your letter reminded me of Terryl Givens’ devotional address that was recently published in BYU Studies and BYU Magazine. Both express my own heart better than I could.

  9. Nate Oman on July 25, 2006 at 4:50 pm

    RW: It seems to me that faith is a matter of trust, and trust is a matter of reliance, ie of taking some step etc. on the strength of this or that belief, promise, etc. I don’t think that my beliefs are voluntary, but I do make choices about which beliefs I actively rely upon. It seems to me that faith is a matter of choosing beliefs on which I rely, rather than a matter of choosing beliefs.

  10. S. P. Bailey on July 25, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    Sometimes it seems that scientism, naturalism, positivism and their ilk have almost completely conquered the western world. Indeed, I have taken note of RW’s prior posts and comments that deploy evolutionary-biological analyses. I suppose it always struck me as mildly ironic to read the resident T&S literature scholar plying that most grim (and powerful and tempting) determinism.

    Anyway, I strongly agree that sincere, thoughtful doubt need not be antithetical to renewed and deepened belief. And that one should not discount the social, emotional, or narrative when forming and articulating the content of one’s faith. Even if such discounting does not entirely impoverish faith, it goes a long way in that direction by draining faith of all its pleasures (empowering our finest emotions, believing together, living and living by good stories).

    So nice redemptive turn on “wishful thinking!”

  11. CS Eric on July 25, 2006 at 5:00 pm

    I agree with the idea that faith is a choice. There is a reason it is called a “leap of faith.” Sooner or later, we all come to a point where we must decide for ourselves and take that jump.

  12. TMD on July 25, 2006 at 5:26 pm

    I’ve long thought that faith is only really faith when it acknowledges doubt; otherwise, it is taken-for-granted knowledge. This, to me, keeps the faith real and vital. Paul clearly and proudly acknowledges faith amid doubt in 1 Corinthians 15, one of the great chapters of the NT, in my mind:

    13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:
    14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
    15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
    16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:
    17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
    18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
    19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

    In this we see the real radicalism of christian faith, a radicalism very much alive in the restored gospel, but which is perhaps dying in many of the mainline churches, and dead in, for instance, unitirianism and vague spirituality.

    I think I would encourage a friend in this situation to think hard about why things became part of her testimony, the rationalized basis of her faith. I would urge her, too, to consider that post-hoc re-rationalization can be a means of temptation–an effort to cause her to forget why the things that made her have faith did so. If she is really convinced that what made her believe was indeed a foundation of sand, I would urge her to be rigourously open to gaining a new testimony. That is, she should identify what kinds of experiences and evidences she can base her testimony on and seek after them, perhaps beginning with reading the BoM. Being rigourously open requires, however, recognizing that skepticism and cynicism are often the easy route, and and the easiness of skeptical paths of explanation can motivate our processing of spiritual things no less than a desire for things to be true.

    I recall, too, that there is a literature in the catholic tradition that acknoweldges spiritual droughts (sometimes lasting decades), following powerful spiritual experiences, as tests of faith. There may be something useful to her in that literature.

  13. Rosalynde Welch on July 25, 2006 at 5:54 pm

    Costanza, thanks—a great compliment to be compared to Givens in any context! I really need to read that piece.

    Nate, I like that formulation, faith=trust. When I was a child with a terminally ill brother, I understood faith as a kind of magical thinking: one slip of the mind, the tiniest lapse of mental effort, and the spell would be broken and all would be lost. As a missionary, probably under the influence of Mary Ellen Edwards or somebody, I came to think of faith primarily as obedient action, or as operating in the world only as obedient action. Recently, under the influence of Jim F. and others, I’ve been thinking of faith as a relationship with God, less having faith in God than living faithfully with God, as I do with my spouse. I think I’m getting closer.

  14. Julie M. Smith on July 25, 2006 at 7:36 pm

    “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; Fear . . . is.”

    Yes! This is the single most important thing I noticed when I first looked seriously at the Gospels. Doubt isn’t the problem; fear is.

  15. Brad Mortensen on July 25, 2006 at 9:12 pm

    I saw Mary Gordon on Bill Moyers\’ series on Faith and Reason. One of her statements stuck in my mind: \”Faith without doubt is either nostalgia or addiction.\” I don\’t know if I understand completely what she means, but it resonates with what I\’ve been feeling lately. Faith that has not been tested by reason, by a willingness to consider the opposite, doesn\’t seem too valuable. I no longer feel willing to accept things solely on faith, but I also resonate with your description of irreducible spiritual feelings. They keep me from abandoning my faith.

  16. Matt Thurston on July 25, 2006 at 9:58 pm

    I generally agree with Rosalynde’s advice: 1.) Doubt is natural, don’t sweat it; 2.) Go sloooooow; 3.) Don’t worry, you’ll get through this… which I take to mean: “Don’t worry, you’ll overcome your anxiety or fear related to your doubts” and NOT, “Don’t worry, you’ll overcome your doubts.” (The former is obtainable; the latter may or may not be.) This is a paraphrase of the idea suggested by Melissa Proctor, via Russell Fox in #2: Don’t be paralyzed by fear.

    I’ve struggled (and have continued to struggle) with serious doubts for the past 7-8 years. For the first 6 years I violated all three points above: I seriously sweated my doubts and worried I’d never get through it; and instead of going “slow”, I just stopped engaging my doubts/questions… I gave up or became paralyzed by fear: “What if it isn’t all true?!?!?!?” It wasn’t until I fully embraced my doubts — actually started seeing them as a gift from God — that the fear that had paralyzed my soul for so many years finally evaporated. Almost overnight, my heart and soul opened once again to the music of the spirit. Now, instead of running away from my doubts, I run towards them.

    The second major thing I did was switch my focus from the “answer” to the “question”. For me, this subtle paradigm shift made a world of difference. Much of Mormonism is made up of absolute truths. It is left to the members to pray if the answers to the questions are true. This is not unlike having the answer key to the math test. Unfortunately, with the answers in hand, many fail to really understand the question. Others, knowing the answer in advance, try to “show their work”, working backwards from the answer to the question. This sometimes results in awkward work or force fed answers to questions.

    I found I had to throw out the answer key altogether and learn to work out the problems the hard way, on my own. Sometimes, after working the problem over and over and over again, I still came up with answers that were different from the answer key. Some of my answers matched what was said in the answer key. Others I have been unable to solve and seriously wonder if the question, despite what the answer book says, has a definitive, absolute answer.

    Bottom line, I’ve found that living with doubts isn’t so scary after all. On the contrary, I’ve become quite comfortable with them. It is through my doubts, not my certainties, that I grow closest to God.

  17. Julie M. Smith on July 25, 2006 at 11:35 pm

    Matt, I love your math test analogy. Very useful, very true.

  18. Dianna H. on July 26, 2006 at 1:42 am

    Doubting Lurker, I too have felt at times that the Lord wasn’t listening to my prayers and perhaps wasn’t interested in my problems but I have started to notice changes, in me, in those causing my problems, in the problems themselves, that lead to solutions that I never would have thought of myself. (whew, talk about a run on sentence) Anyway, I just wanted to point out that sometimes we have to look back and see where we were and then notice how things may have changed. I firmly believe that answers often come in ways we don’t recognise at the time. I hope you find that the answers have come because I have no doubt that the Lord does indeed care about you.

  19. JKS on July 26, 2006 at 2:36 am

    My parents always warned me that people sometimes forget their spiritual experiences. One reason to keep a journal, I guess. In my early history, my list of experiences was not a long list. But I have made sure I haven’t forgotten them (well most of them). I don’t want to lose what was real because I have forgotten or looked back with hindsight that is no longer 20/20.

  20. Ben H on July 26, 2006 at 2:45 am

    Doubting Lurker, I have been in a similar spot; I struggled for years at one point with urgent questions and no answers from God, which was especially confusing because I had gotten used to receiving clear and immediate answers before that. I still rarely get immediate answers; the difference now is that some of those most urgent questions were eventually answered, sometimes quite dramatically, so I can afford to wait on the questions I have now. Why did God wait so long then?

    Looking back, in light of the answers I have received, in my case I think God waited because he wanted me to develop my questions. It is as though I was hollowed out by my long hunger, and so when he did answer my questions, I was ready to receive answers that I would not have had the capacity for otherwise. By the end my questions were very different! They were more radical and comprehensive. I was also ready to listen to a much wider range of possible answers.

    “Ask, and ye shall receive,” says Christ. But what if he has a lot to give us and we only ask for a little bit? What if we get a little taste now and then and, satisfied, never ask for the really good stuff? I don’t mean to suggest what you are asking for is trivial; I’m sure it is not! but in the long run what God wants to give us is perhaps deeper and bigger than we can imagine. Sometimes I think God has a reason for waiting, even though we can really suffer and even be wounded as we stumble in the dark. I don’t know what God has in mind for you, but I believe he has a plan for each of us, and is capable of healing all the scrapes and bruises we incur along the way, if we will keep watching for him.

  21. Russell Arben Fox on July 26, 2006 at 8:49 am

    Doubting Lurker–

    “My real problem is that God does not talk back to me. I am trying, as you suggest, to mingle my ‘own faculties with God’s to make meaning out of sensations and information unorganized.’ However, I see little evidence that God is interested in letting me mingle my faculties with his.”

    I sympathize so much with this, and wish you every good thing I can in your struggles. Perhaps only twice in my life (I’m 37, and a lifelone member) have I had an experience that has struck me as an explicit show of interest from God in my wishes, situation, hopes, perspective, whatever. And even then, my appropriation of that experience always takes a negative, doubting form: “how could I ever know whether or not that wasn’t God’s hand, right there?” The result is a faith that is, by any ordinary testimony-meeting standard, highly localized, personalized, jury-rigged, caveated, interpretive, acculturated, a real Rube Goldberg contraption. Yet it sticks with me, and I’ve come to accept that the constant, looming (or lurking?) push I feel keep the whole rickety apparatus functioning–which I do by doing as you do: “attend[ing] church, serv[ing] in my calling and study[ing] the scriptures”–maybe is my testimony, my gift, and the clearest “evidence” I will ever get of God’s interest in me.

    Truthfully, I’d rather it wasn’t so: those whose perception of God’s hand in their lives doesn’t have to involve such creative personal effort have a stronger testimony, a surer knowledge, a greater gift. But if, even while you doubt, you find yourself still “lurking,” still doing, still trying, still feeling a need to answer this question God or something has put in our hearts….well, for my part, I think I have found in that itself a good enough gift. Enough for this side of the veil, anyway.

    Good luck to you; keep lurking, and let us know how things are going every once in a while.

  22. Russell Arben Fox on July 26, 2006 at 8:59 am

    Brad–

    “One of her statements stuck in my mind: ‘Faith without doubt is either nostalgia or addiction.’ I don’t know if I understand completely what she means, but it resonates with what I’ve been feeling lately. Faith that has not been tested by reason, by a willingness to consider the opposite, doesn’t seem too valuable.”

    I can’t say I fully understand Mary Gordon’s point either, but as you’ve relayed it here, I would dissent. I think a “naive” faith in this particular sense, a faith that has never been challenged by reason, can still be a very valuable thing. It may not be the strongest or “best” kind of faith (though I don’t know what that might mean either)….but then again, maybe it is. I’ve known many people–am related, in fact, to many people–who are not scriptorians, much less scholars, and have never really dug into what they were taught to believe as children, never really gone to their knees and asked themselves “what is real?,” because they have never allowed themselves to be, or never felt inclined to be, troubled by any such arguments or concerns. If the result of such was a petulent, childish faith–”why can’t I get what I want all the time?!”–then I would agree it is unhealthy. But actually, many of these people strike me as wise and mature. They just aren’t, well, intellectual in any way. That teaches me that there are other ways of testing and toughening a person than through reasoned argument or existential alternatives. “Doubt” in that sense may be central to the growth of many of us, but not all of us.

  23. Russell Arben Fox on July 26, 2006 at 9:08 am

    Matt–

    “It wasn’t until I fully embraced my doubts–actually started seeing them as a gift from God–that the fear that had paralyzed my soul for so many years finally evaporated….The second major thing I did was switch my focus from the ‘answer’ to the ‘question.’

    I just realized that your comment in many ways recapitulated everything I meant to say in the above two comments, as well as my original one up above. Thank you! To some people, God gives answers. To others–those with doubts, perhaps–the answers God gives to some of His children or in the scriptures become questions that haunt us, but also call to us. Our response is our answer. (Not as good as seeing an angel, to be sure. But not too bad, either. And, as the scriptures indicate, being one of those lucky few who get visited by angels and relevations has perils all its own…)

  24. Adam Greenwood on July 26, 2006 at 9:58 am

    “I’ve known many people–am related, in fact, to many people–who are not scriptorians, much less scholars, and have never really dug into what they were taught to believe as children, never really gone to their knees and asked themselves “what is real?,â€? because they have never allowed themselves to be, or never felt inclined to be, troubled by any such arguments or concerns. If the result of such was a petulent, childish faith–â€?why can’t I get what I want all the time?!â€?–then I would agree it is unhealthy. But actually, many of these people strike me as wise and mature. They just aren’t, well, intellectual in any way. That teaches me that there are other ways of testing and toughening a person than through reasoned argument or existential alternatives. “Doubtâ€? in that sense may be central to the growth of many of us, but not all of us. ”

    Amen.

  25. Rosalynde Welch on July 26, 2006 at 12:05 pm

    Superb comments, all, thank you so much. It’s so difficult for me to curate a thread the way I should these days, because of my very irregular and wakeful four-month-old—argh! (If you think my blogging is bad, you should see my bathrooms.) I’m sorry not to be able to respond to all comments, but I’m reading them all and so appreciating all the contributions.

    TMD, Matt, Ben, Russell—really good encouragement, I think, coming from a place of empathy. And Dianna, JKS, also—nice comments.

    Doubting Lurker (may I call you Quiet Searcher? that sounds a little more hopeful, and, I bet, more descriptive of you)— I think you’re wise to distinguish questions about history and teaching from the more fundamental epistemological questions of obtaining spiritual knowledge. I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “the sensations and impressions I feel deep within me as I attend church, serve in my calling and study the scriptures are leading to me conclusions that are the opposite of what I once believed, and still want to believe”: do you mean that you no longer experience spiritual sensations and impressions, or that you continue to receive them but have begun interpreting them differently? You don’t have to answer, of course, and I’m not sure that I could offer you a different sort of encouragement based on either answer.

    At one time I would have rejected—compassionately, I hope—suggestions that God is testing your trust in him, or is letting you go solo for a stretch to challenge your spiritual capacities. I still don’t know if this kind of answer is satisfactory, or if it accurately describes God’s intentions, but it strikes me that in any case the making of this kind of creative narrative of one’s relationship to God (creative in the sense of creating new meaning from messy information) is, in fact, one way that humans resemble God. That is, the shortcomings of those suggestions are not evidence that faith is foolish or misplaced, but that its capacity to make meaning is not yet fully-developed. If that makes any sense (I’ve got the 4-m/o squirming on my lap now).

  26. greenfrog on July 26, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    Could it be instead that desire and story and all the rest aren’t, as I’ve thought, counterfeit revelation, but are in fact the elemental substances of revelation, and that in personal revelation God invites us to make meaning with him? To be a conscious human is to transform sensory information into, precisely, desire and story and memory and feeling; presumably it is this capacity for consciousness that sets apart humanity as the family of God, that is, in fact, the image of the divine in us. To receive personal revelation, then, might not be so much a problem of tuning out the static of self and tuning in the celestial frequency, but rather of heightening the processes of consciousness, of mingling our own faculties with God’s to make meaning out of sensations and information unorganized. Which is to say, maybe it is wishful thinking, and maybe that’s exactly how it ought to be.

    I think this is a beautiful articulation of my experience. It seems to me that there are a lot of implications for a religion such as ours if this articulation is a correct representation of the interaction of God and people in communities.

  27. Doubting Lurker on July 26, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    Thanks to all who have resonded to my comments. I will try to elaborate on a few themes, but time does not permit me to respond individually.

    With respect to the passage from Rosalynde’s post quoted by greenfrog above, I think I can accept this formulation of how we receive and understand revelation in some contexts. This approach might work as an articulation of one’s general experience with the divine. However, I am not sure it has any application in other contexts. For example, I struggle mightily to accept the basic message of the restoration and much of our doctrine. I recently reread the Book of Mormon. In reading and praying all of my impressions were negative. I just did not believe that I was reading real history about real people. I am not suggesting that those impressions came from God. I don’t believe that they did. But nor did I have any sense that God was telling me to believe. I don’t know how I would take whatever spiritual impressions and other “sensory information” I have, and turn them into any kind of conviction that the Book of Mormon is true, or that the priesthood was restored. Nor do I know why I would want to–it seems too much like trying manufacture the truth. Created narratives might work well to define one’s relationship with the divine essence. I don’t know how to make sense of this concept when it comes to faith in the fundamental truth claims of the LDS church.

    When I go to church, I do not get the sense that God is there. Frankly, I just don’t get the sense that God is anywhere. I can accept a God who leaves me alone to make decisions and face trials on my own. I have never been one to expect him to lead me by the hand. In fact, I can’t think of any decision I have made in forty years where I was truly convinced that God had inspired me, and that never really troubled me. But if God wants me to create from my own experience and sensory information a narrative of my relationship with him, should I not expect him to respond at least a little bit? Why should I not conclude that the dearth of answers is actually his way of saying “Look you idiot, I have given you absolutely no reason to persist in banging your head against the wall. Now go try Bhuddism.”

  28. Doubting Lurker on July 26, 2006 at 3:22 pm

    Matt: Could you elaborate on what you mean by embracing your doubts and how you grow closer to God through your doubts? I am having trouble understanding how doubting that there is a God brings us closer to him, or how embracing my doubts about the historicity of the Book of Mormon will help me. I am quite sure that if I embrace my doubts, I will also embrace world views that are quite different from Mormonism, and possibly even Christianity.

  29. Matt Thurston on July 26, 2006 at 3:53 pm

    I should mention that my decision to “embrace my doubts” (see #16 above) was akin to the Acrophobe voluntarily jumping off the high dive, or the Arachnaphobe agreeing to lay down in a bed of tarantulas on Fear Factor. I had become so tired, so worn out, so deadened by fear, that I determined that the fall or bite of the tarantula would be preferable to the *fear* of the fall or bite. In other words, I’d prefer spiritual suicide — a complete loss of testimony — to spiritual incapacity. I was surprised to find that the fall from the high dive was exhilerating, cushioned by cool water at the bottom; that the scary, fanged tarantulas were actually warm and cuddly.

    What I would suggest to Rosalynde’s friend, or Doubting Lurker, is to let go of the doubts, retreat backwards to a place where you feel comfortable. If you are stuck while rock climbing, if you can’t go up, if you can’t go left or right, go backwards until you feel safe, and then chart a new course back up the face of the cliff. For me, that meant letting go of absolute statements like “this is the only true church” or “Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God” and all that those statements entail. I had to backtrack almost to the bottom of the mountain, back to “I believe God exists and loves me”, before I could start climbing back up the mountain again. Others may not have to backtrack so far. But what backtracking does is give you some space to breath, to relax, to see the course ahead from a clearer perspective. When you are stuck on the face of that rock, you are clinging to that wall with a shaky hold to an ever-crumbling crack, all you can see is a couple of yards ahead, no footholds or handholds to speak of… you’re blinded by cognative dissonance (or whatever), and you’re starting to freak out that your grip won’t hold.

    I thought backtracking, (frex: letting go of those statements re Church or J.S.), would be painful and scary, that I’d somehow lose my identity. Surprisingly, neither happened. That didn’t mean that I completely abandoned the Church or Joseph Smith; on the contrary I continued to embrace them, albeit from a different vantage point on the rock.

    I now marvel at the comfort to be found both in certainty and doubt. Certainty and Doubt would appear to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, and yet I’ve found relief and solace at both ends. There was comfort knowing I belonged to the “true Church”, that I had all the answers. The feeling was contentment, safety, surety. And I’ve felt comfort not having all the answers. As I said before, I now enjoy the comfort and freedom of figuring out the answers to the questions far more than I did force-fitting the pre-packaged answers to the questions.

    This “backtracking” idea has made a world of difference for me, though I wonder if it gels with LDS teachings? Anyone? Going back to the rock climbing metaphor, it seems the LDS advice would be to hang on to that rock with all your might, to endure to the end, to pray/fast/study/ponder for a pathway, a new hand or foot hold to open up in front of you. I’d argue that this advice works some of the time, just not all the time. I’ve just seen too many Saints stuck in the same place on the wall year after year, praying and “enduring” with little or no progress, while other Saints (or People in general) climb right past them. They seem to think they will be rewarded for “hanging in there”, but “enduring to the end” means moving towards a goal (sometimes backwards then forwards), not enduring in the same place.

  30. Rosalynde Welch on July 26, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    DL: I might be a lousy pastor, but yes, I think you should expect God to respond at least a little bit. As I said in the post, I believe some individuals receive surer witnesses in the form of open, dialogic communication with the heavens—although this seems to happen infrequently, and usually for the good of a group rather than for the good of an individual—and I live in expectation of and hope for such a witness, for myself and for you.

    I was struck by your phrase, “Nor do I know why I would want to [work out a conviction of the Restoration].” Perhaps this is part of the blankness you feel? Could the introspective of work of discovering *why* you would want to believe provide any further light? I don’t know.

  31. Doubting Lurker on July 26, 2006 at 4:19 pm

    Matt: Thank you for that explanation. I think I understand, but I also think that your approach is inconsistent with the teachings of the Church. It appears to me that you have decided to simply abandon any pretense of belief in some propositions and have decided to exercise faith in fundamental principles which you do accept without feeling the need to affirm those propositions which you do not accept. I have done the same to a certain degree, and found a measure of peace as a result. But the peace I have felt is not faith. It is the peace one feels when one stops banging one’s head against the wall. I am still banging, but I have put a little padding on the wall.

    Rosalynde: The reason I said “nor do I know why I would want to . . . ” is that I believe I should only want to believe the truth. The Restoration is a wonderful thing, if it is true. I want it to be true, but I want to believe it only if it is true. I appreciate your candid responses.

  32. Seth R. on July 26, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    It is a nice letter.

    I would simply add that you do not destroy a man’s house without providing him with a way for a better one.

    Similarly, you do not destroy a sister’s faith without showing her and better house of belief or commitment.

    I’ve always conceptualized this as applying to my actions toward others. But I just now realized that it also applies to my dealings with myself. I should not discard my own system of belief until I have found something better that I wish to live for.

    Abandoning testimony without any alternative object of belief is foolishness and will lead to despair and bitterness.

  33. Matt Thurston on July 26, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    Doubting Lurker, I actually posted #29 before reading your comments in #28. Still, some of my remarks seem to address your concerns. For what its worth, your doubts in #27 basically echo my own (and still do).

    For me, “embracing my doubts” absolutely meant plunging head first into studies of BOM historicity as well as an exploration of alternative faiths like Buddhism. My conclusion was this: “If the Church is TRUE, then truth will overcome any honest inquiry.” I actually got pissed off that I was protecting this fragile, tiny, meager testimony from the elements out of fear that there was nothing really worth protecting. Shouldn’t TRUTH be able to withstand the elements? Why was I acting like my house was built on sand instead of stone?

    Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend this path for everyone, but I felt I was at a place in my life where I was mature enough to handle it. Frankly, as I’ve explained before, I had no other alternative. I tried the ponder/pray/fast/endure-to-the-end approach and it wasn’t working; it brought me to a standstill.

    The key of course is “*honest* inquiry”. This is where Rosalynde’s “go slow” advice comes in handy. (By the way, I’m sure I’ve ventured way off the path Rosalynde intended with her post… sorry, please feel free to distance yourself from my advice.) But “go slow” backtracking down the mountain, or plunging into your questions relative to BOM historicity, etc. (Armand Mauss gives similar advice.) “Go slow” means don’t do anything rash; don’t throw it all away. I’ve maintained my activity in the Church throughout my journey. For every Vogel or Brodie I read Bushman or Hill. (Surprisingly, they ALL speak to me.)

    So, what I meant when I said “embracing my doubts brought me closer to God,” is that I was now actively searching for God (or “meaning”) again, and by searching for him/her/it I seem to find him/her/it again and again. Yes, I was searching before, but I kept looking under the same rock.

    Again, my advice probably runs counter to LDS teachings relative to Doubt (not to mention the advice of many here at T&S)… but like you, I once felt, as you say in #27, “When I go to church, I do not get the sense that God is there.” Now, call it what you will, a “burning bosom” or whatever, I feel like I’m more tuned into “God’s frequency” (not unlike how I felt in my teens and twenties), whereas all I heard for six of the past eight years was “static” (to borrow once again from R.’s post).

  34. Matt Thurston on July 26, 2006 at 5:16 pm

    Doubting Lurker (#31)… I agree with what you said. Obviously, I cast my net wider than most Latter-day Saints, but that is what I have to do (for now at least), to find God. To those who can cast their nets in the waters of Mormonism and come up with fish every time, wonderful. I can still cast my net in those waters and come up with fish some of the time myself. And yes, I have a patchwork net, accepting some principles, rejecting others. Actually, its not that I “reject” them, I just find I can’t believe/know/have-faith in some with the same degree of fervor.

    What’s the alternative? Forcing myself to accept them (as I used to do) is, as you said, like banging your head against the wall, or as I explained, getting stuck on the side of a wall/cliff. Eventually, you’ll either crack your head open, or loose your footing and fall/crash to the ground. Why not add a little padding, or retreat down the wall a little? Don’t all LDS do this? Don’t some of us add some Polygamy padding or Blacks/Priesthood padding here and there to our faith/belief “Wall” ? I’ve added more padding than most, but it has allowed me to maintain a space amongst my LDS brothers and sisters. If I were forced to accept an unpadded wall, I’d probably have to bail.

    I’m curious about your comment, “But the peace I have felt is not faith. It is the peace one feels when one stops banging one’s head against the wall.” That pretty much describes my initial feelings after I “embraced my doubt”. After awhile I found I was able to rebuild some faith. I’ll be curious if the same happens with you.

  35. Rosalynde Welch on July 26, 2006 at 10:46 pm

    “I want it to be true, but I want to believe it only if it is true.”

    You’re ringing my bell, brother. My very best wishes to you.

    And Matt, I hereby dub you the most metaphorical commenter in T&S history. :)

  36. Brenda on July 26, 2006 at 10:51 pm

    This is honestly the best blog I’ve ever read. I really appreciate the sympathy and personal accounts that are shared. I can really relate to a lot of the comments. This comment, in particular, strikes at my heart: “Doubt in that sense may be central to the growth of many of us, but not all of us.�

    I’m an analytical creature and the more studying and thoughtful prayer I pursue, the more questions I have. This must mean that doubt is central to my growth (not an easy growth path to take, though). At church I listen to other women bear very emotional and emphatic testimonies. I wonder, “How can they state that so strongly and emotionally?� “How much thought have they put into that belief?� It appears that some can gain a testimony easily and never look back.

    That’s not my gift. I’ve concluded that I’ll never be like those women. I’m constantly trying to reconcile my beliefs with what I learn about the world around me. I constantly feel insatiated and want to learn more and more to get the information I need to reconcile my many questions.

    I appreciate the advice to take it slowly. That is working for me. I’ve also learned to hone in on what I fear, figure out what the question is, and to be at peace with not knowing how everything turns out. Also, an invaluable tactic that I adopted years ago is to discern between core Gospel principles and church culture/history. This has helped immensely.

    My greatest asset: I have a lot of faith in God and a strong belief that the Atonement is for all of God’s children, not just those who have it all figured out. Thank you all for sharing your personal thoughts.

  37. Matt Thurston on July 27, 2006 at 12:12 pm

    Most metaphorical? What gave me away? Fishing, Rock Climbing, Padded Walls, Spiders, High Dives…

    Looking back, I probably should have just evoked my Big Gulp metaphor, which, believe it or not, can be applied to EVERYTHING: religion, faith, sports, parenting, sex, death, love, gardening, stamp collecting, and spelunking.

  38. Anna on July 27, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    There is so much both in this post and in the comments that is wise, compassionate, and beautifully expressed. Many thanks to all.

  39. Rob Briggs on July 31, 2006 at 7:34 pm

    Matt, great climbing analogy. Where do you rock climb? Joshua Tree? Tahquitz? Apple Valley? Williamson? New Jack City? My son Jared & I climb at Rock City in Anaheim but desperately need to get out of the Basin to somewhere high, cool and breezy.

    Some place high, cool and breezy spiritually, too, which is the subject of this thread. I haven’t visited for a while & upon my return I’m delighted to find this absolutely wonderful thread. Thanks to all.

WELCOME

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